Western scholars argue that the Chinese government’s repressive action and its forced occupation of Tibet have continuously undermined Tibetan identity, which has resulted in gross human rights violations. One of its consequences has been an annual exodus of around 3,000 Tibetans who travel via Nepal to meet their spiritual leader Dalai Lama and other heads of Tibetan government in exile in India. Approximately 20,000 Tibetans now reside in settlements scattered throughout Nepal. The Tibetans and their descendants residing in Nepal are in a state of legal limbo; they are neither recognized as refugees nor given any legal status.
Additionally, Nepal is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or 1967 Protocol and does not have a domestic Refugee Legislation despite hosting a large number of refugees and asylum seekers. In order to address the increasing volume of Tibetan refugees in Nepal, an informal “gentlemen’s agreement” was signed between the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights (UNHCR) in Nepal and the Nepali government in 1989 under the auspices of the US Embassy in Nepal.
Nepal has acceded to the agreement whereby it facilitates the transit of new Tibetan arrivals through Nepal, typically to Tibetan exile communities in India. However, the flow of people has rarely been unidirectional. Many Tibetans instead are choosing to stay back in Nepal and increasingly, Tibetans who have returned from India are reportedly participating in various political activities in Nepal. Moreover, the growing numbers of Tibetan refugees as well as their political activities has not gone unnoticed by the international media. They have been closely scrutinizing Nepali government’s handling of Tibetan refugee issues. But while these issues are widely debated in international media and political spheres, little attention has been given to the impact of Tibetan refugees to Nepal’s security.
Historically, China has played a quiet role in Nepal’s politics and has been adhering to the norms of the peace and friendship. However, China’s geopolitical and foreign policy interests have risen significantly with increasing Tibetan activities in Nepal. On the other hand, Nepal faces countervailing pressures from the international community—particularly from large foreign-aid donors such as the US and the EU—to recognize the special status and plight of Tibetans fleeing via Nepal. This has created a unique situation for Nepal’s security. The country is caught between addressing its ‘national security’ challenges relating to Tibetan refugees, whilst adhering to its ‘human rights’ obligation of safeguarding refugee rights.
The presence of Tibetan refugees in Nepal has lead to increased interference in domestic politics by Nepal’s powerful northern neighbour, i.e. China. The Tibetans have been protesting—on both cultural and political grounds in Nepal, attracting significant global attention. This inevitably leads to demands from Beijing that Nepali authorities prevent such protests. Recently, China has demanded stronger border control from Nepal and conducted a series of high-level bilateral security meetings at different levels of government.
Nepali government firmly supports the ‘One China Policy’, upholding the belief that Tibet and Taiwan are part of China and remains adamant that Nepali territory should not be used for Tibetan protests against China. However, with Nepal’s transition to federal structure along ethnic lines, China is worried how such an arrangement will impact the Tibetan refugee issues. It was easy for the Chinese government to convey their concern and get Nepali government’s assurance on ‘One China Policy’ with the unitary model, but China is nervous and uncertain how various ethnic provinces will deal with the Tibetan refugee issues in a likely federal structure.
For historical reasons, there are residual fears in Nepal of possible anti-Chinese activities initiated by Tibetan refugees. Nepal has already witnessed an impact of Tibetan armed uprising in 1959, famously know as the Khampa revolution. During this uprising, Tibetan Khampas operated mainly from a base secretly established in Mustang of northwest Nepal. We have noticed how international aid for Mustang has increased in recent times. Frequent travels of the envoys of the US, India and other western countries to Mustang raise a serious question on their intent. The Chinese envoy’s subsequent visit to the same district and increasing Chinese aid are being taken as attempts to take the locals into confidence and foil any anti-China activities. In the historical context of the Khampa revolution, these developments raise real fears in Nepal—its territory being used for anti-Chinese activities could see Nepal caught hopelessly between two warring parties.
The international community plays an important role, as its interests in Nepal varies from strategic considerations to the massive financial aid and traditional developmental assistance. The international community (specifically the EU and the US) have repeatedly voiced their concerns over the deteriorating human rights situation in Nepal. The US has been very vocal on Nepal’s rights situation, singling out Nepal’s indiscriminate treatment of Tibetan refugees. Human right organisations have also been critical of Nepal’s appeasement policy towards China. This criticism, however, comes without an appreciation or understanding of other pressures that Nepal faces.
The government of Nepal has acceded to the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ for two principal reasons. First, it requires UNHCR’s assistance with its Bhutanese refugee crisis, and cooperation in the gentleman’s agreement appears to be something of a quid pro quo for that assistance. Second, it remains under pressure from the US, the EU, and other foreign-aid donors to assist Tibetan refugees in need. Countervailing pressure from the Chinese government to repatriate Tibetans and tighten border control, however, has led to increasing incidents of non-compliance. China feels intimidated by the unrest as well as increased international involvement in Nepal as it is well aware that Nepal’s precarious geopolitical position might be used against it.
Nepal cannot afford to alienate China on Tibet, but nor can it fully support the international community’s stand.
The Tibetan refugee crisis is an issue which highlights Nepal’s vulnerability to foreign interference. There need not be an inherent tension between recognizing and acting upon the security implications of refugee issues and their humanitarian protection. Nevertheless, the Tibetan refugee issue raises a range of sensitive conceptual security and foreign policy debates in Nepal which cannot be easily resolved. The act of returning refugees to a state where their lives or freedom may be threatened violates the bedrock principle of international refugee law. But failing to do so will invite Chinese wrath, which is the last thing Nepal can afford in this time of transition.
The negative security implications of Tibetan refugees must be understood and acknowledged in order to allow for formulation of policy designed to enhance Nepal’s ability in dealing with both the international community and its neighbours—specifically China. A country’s foreign policy is the extension of its national interest, and it does not change substantially with a change in government. But Nepal’s attitude towards foreign powers lacks any vision and direction. Until Nepal develops a coherent foreign and security policy, the international constraints it faces are unlikely to go away.
The author is a researcher on security sector reform at Kathmandu School of Law. He has a Masters degree in Asian studies from Australian National Universit